Ahead of #GEOINT2019: The Golden Age for Persistent SAR is about to Arrive

Capella Space will be at GEOINT 2019 in San Antonio at booth #963 in the exhibit hall. In this post, Capella’s Vice President of Government Services previews his Lightning Talk to be delivered at Innovation Corner (booth #1943) during Tuesday’s session from 2:25pm – 3:15pm CST. 



The small satellite revolution has arrived. Breakthrough technology has enabled companies to build small, powerful satellites at lower costs than previous generations of systems, while a thriving small launch market makes low-Earth orbit deployment possible like never before. Simultaneous to this development is the establishment of an expanded global footprint of ground stations, allowing for faster and more comprehensive downlink services. These developments, combined with the exponential growth of cloud computing power and ubiquity, create the conditions for a thriving commercial market in Earth observation. For the national security community, this is right on time. In 2015, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the United States Intelligence Community (IC) published Commercial GEOINT Vision and Strategies, providing a roadmap for how the private sector will work with the government to address critical gaps in global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  Four years later, it’s time to assess how far we’ve come and where we are headed.

The original vision

In step with the new U.S. National Space Policy, the DoD and IC’s 2015 Commercial GEOINT strategies include leveraging market changes to fill holes in capabilities; aligning and optimizing commercial systems with U.S. government mission needs; and adapting information technology, such as cloud computing and storage, data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, to enable the evolution of imagery-based data products and deliver them quickly as services. It calls for changing the way the U.S. government does business as they evolve as  buyers of commercial GEOINT services. The DoD and IC’s major tenets of their Commercial GEOINT strategies are a unified vision.

An early lead

The U.S. has enjoyed a near monopoly on space access and information in the past. But with plummeting costs making it far easier to get into space, the U.S. must go beyond simply gaining access to data and move to generating more knowledge from data — and doing it quickly. Remaining agile is critical, because several U.S. government operations around the world rely on commercial space-based GEOINT for contingency operations, theater of war security, disaster response and humanitarian assistance. The U.S. Government is looking to the private sector for several technologies, including electro-optical systems, RF mapping, and multi-spectral, hyper-spectral, infrared and high-definition video. Commercial companies are also supplying solutions for Synthetic Aperture RADAR (SAR), which can see through clouds and capture high-quality images in all light and weather conditions. While the commercial SAR systems sector is developing quickly around the world, the U.S. was prohibited from developing this technology by Congress and thus has been slower to address this formidable GEOINT commercial segment.

From information to insights

The decreased cost of getting into space enables companies and governments to redeploy resources to advance data processing and analysis, rather than sensor development and operation. Traditionally, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has extracted information and generated context from raw image data. But commercial providers today are providing raw data from multiple sources, which in turn lets the NGA workforce focus on making sense of that information to develop better insights. Commercial cloud storage and computing solutions, ground stations as a service and other components of an ecosystem of services are reducing cost, lowering data latency and vastly improving the data analytics process.

With new tools and opportunities also comes new potential breakdowns and challenges to overcome. For example, we’re facing a shortage of high-quality labeled AI/ML training data. Persistent SAR is a critical component of this unmet need. Effective machine learning requires vast amounts of training data inputs. Fortunately, this is a problem that more commercial company participation can solve. Large SAR constellations, when fully deployed, will produce more than 100,000 images per day, ultimately enhancing the performance and value of machine learning systems.

Eye to the future

The U.S. and our allies demand an intelligence advantage, which requires data and intelligence to be accessible, timely and relevant. Commercial space-based GEOINT will deliver those critical assets. It’s vital for the NGA and commercial GEOINT companies to maintain mutual transparency, long-term funding commitments and openness to form a successful partnership.

We’ve come a long way since 2015. The pillars of the GEOINT Strategy remain sound. Commercial space-based GEOINT is a diverse, distributed collection mechanism that the government can use without having to invest in or maintain its own dedicated constellations. But there are still challenges to overcome, and that involves structural changes, not just changes at the margins. The U.S. government must continue to adapt as the commercial GEOINT industry evolves and takes shape. Handled wisely, U.S. government GEOINT organizations can make the most of their resources and gain unprecedented insight and intelligence, while excelling in their critically important missions. When agencies adapt to changing conditions and optimize return on their resources they excel in achieving their mission.